Pope visits deserted Rome, and prays

Pope Francis visited a deserted Rome on Sunday to pray at two shrines for the end of COVID-19.

The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was his first stop.

Then he walked along one of Rome’s usually busy main streets to visit St. Marcello church.

There he prayed before a crucifix used in a procession when the plague hit Rome in 1522.

His prayers were for an end to the pandemic, for the sick and their families and for health providers and workers keeping pharmacies and food stores open.

A national lockdown is underway in Italy to help prevent the virus’s spread.

The Vatican says Holy Week and Easter services will be held without public participation.

This is believed to be the first time this has happened in modern times.

Decisions about how usually massive Holy Week events will be scaled down are still being worked through.

One of these events occurs on Palm Sunday in commemoration of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. It usually takes place in St. Peter’s Square, which traditionally is decorated with olive trees while those in the crowd hold up palm branches.

Another Holy Week event, the Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday, takes place around Rome’s Colosseum.

The main event is the Easter Sunday Mass and the pope’s twice yearly “Urbi et Orbi” blessing and message from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Square.

Tens of thousands of flowers to decorate the papal altar and the entire square are usually flown in from the Netherlands. This year, however, the Dutch ambassador to the Vatican says there will be no flowers.

Everyone is having to make changes because of COVID-19.

The pope, the Vatican and the church in predominantly Catholic Italy have all had to make changes to centuries of tradition.

Masses in Italy have been canceled and bishops are urging the faithful to participate via television and the internet.

In Poland, which has over 100 COVID-19 cases and three deaths, the faithful are being told to watch mass on TV or online after the government banned public gatherings larger than 50 people.

Many priests preached to nearly empty pews on Sunday.

“It is such a depressing feeling for a priest,” one priest said.

Where the children’s Mass usually attracts about 200 people, he said “Today there were maybe 17 people, plus five acolytes, three priests. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”


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